BOISE – Lawmakers underwent a half-day of ethics training in the wake of a series of high-profile lapses involving Idaho officials, a first-time event that Capitol leaders hope will head off rare instances when lawmakers’ behavior risks damaging the public’s confidence in government.
Among other things, lawmakers were reminded by speakers including a former Iowa Legislature ethics committee chairman to actively cultivate a culture of integrity as they go about their business during the 2013 session.
Idaho lawmakers’ ethics have been under scrutiny of late.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo was arrested before Christmas in Alexandria, Va., for drunken driving, heightening skepticism about public officials’ behavior. Crapo pleaded guilty, a smudge on his previously clean image as a nondrinking Mormon leader.
Last year, former Republican Sen. John McGee quit the chamber amid sexual harassment allegations, preceded by a drunken driving arrest. And angst lingered for years about how former Republican Rep. Phil Hart’s refusal to pay his taxes reflected on the House; he survived ethics hearings but lost re-election last year.
Legislative leaders sent a strong message about Wednesday’s session in the Capitol, reminding lawmakers to be there – or else.
“The attendance in the ethics training is not optional,” House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told his members just before the early-afternoon session.
Former Iowa state Rep. Scott Raecker heads up Character Counts in his home state, an institute housed at Drake University that promotes civil society including through programs in public schools.
“I challenge all of us to raise the bar higher,” Raecker said, adding it’s not always easy in an arena where passions run high. “We need self-discipline. We need to focus on pursuing excellence in what we do.”
He went beyond black-and-white ethical issues, urging Idaho legislators to have the courage to depart from tradition if they see an opportunity to promote a culture where good public policy can flourish.
Raecker, a Republican, described being told once by one of his state’s House leaders that his bill wouldn’t get a hearing – because it lacked sponsors from the majority party. He pushed the issue, and the bill passed.
“Sometimes you have to break with the culture,” Raecker said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Wednesday’s ethics session provided the chance to poke a little fun, at the expense of other states whose reputation for ethical behavior has become fodder for national jokes.
For instance, three Illinois Democratic state lawmakers were sworn in this month while facing felony charges. One, Rep. Derrick Smith, won re-election in November after being expelled from office three months earlier by his House colleagues.
“You should be thankful you’re not Illinois,” said chief deputy attorney general Brian Kane.
Kane participated last year in an ethics hearing in the Idaho Legislature where there was little joking. Democratic lawmakers complained that state Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, didn’t adequately disclose he’d sold oil exploration leases on his land in Payette County during debate over new laws governing the petroleum industry.
Pearce was cleared of wrongdoing.
Still, Kane said lawmakers entrusted with the public’s confidence should adhere to an important maxim: It’s never a crime to over-disclose entanglements, perceived or otherwise. Lawmakers are required to publicly disclose conflicts before they vote.
“When you’re concerned about whether or not you’ve taken an action that should be disclosed prior to a vote, I would always err on the side of over disclosure,” Kane cautioned the nearly the 105 lawmakers, a smattering of lobbyists and others listening. “A win in court does not translate to a win in public opinion.”